Identity and a sense of place

By Sarah Crown

Imtiaz Dharker

If the poet pitches it right, a collection's title can be made to act as a shop window: a place to signpost intentions, gesture at the frame of mind in which the poems were conceived, the wider landscape to which the poet was referring. They tend, of course, to be suggestive rather than prescriptive (think of Larkin's High Windows, or Don Paterson's Landing Light), but if you're after a quiet hint on how to approach the poems inside, this is the place to start. In Imtiaz Dharker's latest collection, however, the title doesn't so much hint as holler. From its subject matter and imagery right down to the pen-and-ink sketches of whorled, undulant landscapes with which she punctuates the poems, this volume is larded and smudged with fingerprints.

Clearly, for her, the symbol is a resonant one. Dharker is a definitively diasporic writer (born in Pakistan, she grew up in Glasgow and now shuttles between Mumbai and London), and it's easy to see the appeal of the fingerprint – with its suggestions of permanence, immutability, above all of ownership – to a woman in exile, unsure of her place in the world. It stands as a counterpoint to the nagging fear of effacement that lurks around the foundations of this collection and bubbles to the surface in poems such as "Her footprint vanishes", which begins "She disappeared without a trace, / they said. If there were footprints / on the sand, the sea got there / before anyone saw and wiped / her off the face of the earth." This bleak, blank image of annulment – the nameless woman, the unreliable no-man's-land of shoreline, the second-hand reporting that turns even absence into a negative, a rumour of absence – contrasts tellingly with a series of poems set on the south coast of England around history-steeped Hastings, in which images crisp up and colours deepen in terrain that has acquired stability from the stamp of the past. Sea frets and shifting sands are replaced by dense reds, blues and greens and a reassuring litany of solid station names, told like beads on a rosary: "Tonbridge passes. High Brooms. Tunbridge Wells, / Wadhurst and Stonegate". In the place of the washed-out footprint of the earlier poem are concrete historical "dates" that mark the ground like "bigger bootprints, / pressed in harder".

This sense of a landscape imprinted ripples through the collection. The links that Dharker draws between identity and landscape are physically apparent in countryside that takes on the contours of fingerprints, cresting and diving in "folds of soil and mud", and in the scrolled, mazey objects (honeycomb, coral, seashells, the "wrinkling tissue" of poppy petals) that collect here (the parallels reach a climax in "Someone else", which begins "Today the tips slipped off my fingers. // They rolled themselves across a field, / dug down, came back as furrows / in the ground . . ."). And the resemblance is more than skin-deep: like fingerprints, too, Dharker's landscapes are also capable of yielding clues to our ancestry. The soil beneath our feet conceals "the earth's deep squirm / around an anklet or an amulet, a broken cup", and the earthworm's discovery of "an ivory handle, copper, / . . . the remainder of kings, / clean bone, potatoes, her jewelled hand . . ." Everything is connected in this universe: fingerprints to landscape, landscape to ancestry, ancestry to identity – and identity to fingerprints again.

It's the endless interweaving of a handful of symbols and meanings that gives Leaving Fingerprints the coherence that distinguishes it as a collection. Like a fingerprint – the image is inescapable – each poem here is a representative fragment of the whole; each exhibits a facet of the themes of the collection and explores it through the plain but robust iconography of rivers, hands, trees and soil which Dharker establishes. Individual stories trace through the collection like lifelines on a palm: the awful legend of Anarkali, a slave-girl who became the lover of a prince and was buried alive for her troubles; the magical daily doling-out of tiffin boxes in Mumbai (the only objects in her world that are never mislaid), the power and significance of cooking (she's good on succulence and savour). All join together in the late long poem "Breath and shadow", in which her symbols jumble and blend with one another and she winds lines from other poets' work into the river of her own poem. Even the final breakdown of meaning (the palm reader, who's been dogging the poet's steps through the collection, loses her grip, crying "I can no more read this hand / than I can read running water") feels like part of the story: a transcending of the question of identity; a recognition that it's what the hand does, not what it says, that matters.

Unfortunately, though, this integrity is only clearly visible in the overview. Consider the poems individually, and the picture tends to dissolve. Sometimes meandering, occasionally overblown (as in "Multiple Exposure", in which the speaker claims portentously of a photograph "It could alter / your view of all that is human // passing like you / passing through / passing through a frame // knowing we may all pass / this way again"), they lack the purposefulness and drive of the grander narrative. There are moments of excellence – the poems on Anarkali, the series on Hastings – and some glorious images (the picture of a fingerprint as a "mortal coil" is particularly graceful). But the sum here is unavoidably greater than the parts.

Leaving Fingerprints
by Imtiaz Dharker

The Guardian
Dec. 5, 2009

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